Whenever the topic of book recommendations comes up, I always suggest a work by Brandon Sanderson. I may’ve gotten my childhood fantasy literature fix courtesy of Brian Jacques and J.K. Rowling, and my intro to more adult sci-fi/fantasy via Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” series, but the most well-thumbed book on my shelves is Words of Radiance. What made it my favorite book, and what makes me such a Sanderson fan-boy, is his uncanny ability to read my mind and print my thoughts on the page.
Seriously—the first time I went to one of his book signings, I told him that at one point, I had to physically put the book down and yell, “Brandon Sanderson, get out of my head!” at the page.
Why am I talking about a fantasy epic in a video game review? Because, like the Cosmere, ICEY—or, as it’s often stylized, _.iCEY_—always has another secret.
When I finally got around to installing Steam on my PC a few months ago, ICEY was one of the games that popped up on the introductory screen. I thought the design was cool, so I put it on my Watch List for later.
Fast forward to the end of November, and I’m hit with two pieces of information in rapid succession:
- ICEY is on sale on Steam
- It’s been reviewed on Kotaku—and they like it
Never before have roughly $6 been so well spent.
I’d watched part of the Kotaku review, as well as part of Cryaotic’s playthrough, before starting my own game, because I wanted to look at it with as fresh a pair of eyes as possible.
That was several months ago. And if you’re wondering why it took so damn long for me to write this review, it’s because a) I seriously haven’t had much time; and, b) I have never played a game that has so thoroughly screwed with my mind before. I’ve played other games that drew me in, like Chrono Trigger and Fire Emblem: Awakening, but never before have I had to physically step away from a game because my spine was tingling enough to leave me light-headed and I’d started to question the basic assumption of who I was to the game.
Seriously, I even bought a copy of The King in Yellow so I could try and make a MatPat-esque game theory about it! This game thrilled me, floored me, and head-on addressed many of the most pressing issues the world of gaming currently faces.
You may be asking your screen, “The f*ck’s The King in Yellow? And why are you alluding to one of the greatest RPGs ever made in a review about an indie Steam game? It can’t be that good, can it?”
In many ways, yes, it can.
If you couldn’t tell from the video above, in a nut-shell, it’s a hack-n-slash side-scroller where you can willfully disobey the narrator. But that’s like saying 1984 is about communism: nowhere close to the full story.
Mechanically, the game’s simple and taut. ICEY only has a sword, but she can use it for both Hitokiri Battosai-style rapid-fire light attacks, or perform shield-smashing, but slow, heavy attacks. These two attack methods can be chained together in various combos: some combos you start the game off with, whereas others can be purchased in special kiosks located in the various sub-areas. Along with more combos, you can also upgrade combo damage, special moves, health, and the strength of your regenerating energy shield.
On TV Tropes, the game is described as part Mega Man Zero, part Stanley Parable. While I can’t speak for the latter definitively (I’ve since learned what it is, but I’ve never played it), the former comparison is pretty spot-on, at least where swordplay’s concerned. You can chain together long combos, dashing through the air or on the ground, bifurcating enemies in showers of sparks. Although ICEY has no long-range weapon, every enemy releases energy crystals when defeated: one of her moves lets her gather these crystals together and perform what’s basically an iaijutsu strike that hits every enemy on the screen. This move also launches enemies into the air, so you can keep on performing the Will It Blend ballet.
The enemy design is pretty sweet, like if the art director for Tron: Legacy designed an entire season of Battle Bots. You’ve got your basic energy-blasting robot dog; an ANNOYING AS HELL gnat that shoots tiny lasers and refuses to stay still and die; something that looks like the metal love-child of a Sawzall and the Megatank from Code: Lyoko; a weird jellyfish-beehive robot that swallows you and self-destructs; a robo-centaur knight with a lance and energy blasts; a rock ‘em, sock ‘em eyeball—and that’s just some of them.
The bosses are even crazier—but I’ll get to that in a second.
Yeah, the plot, yeah...um...rest assured, there is one...technically. If you play through the game as intended, it’s almost terribly simple: ICEY awakens in a facility, is told the world’s gone to sh*t because of a dude named Judas, and it’s your job to kill him and his small army of attack bots. Playing like this, the game’s maybe two hours long. Flashy, tight, but not very satisfying; the video game equivalent of a well-made donut.
You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.
Okay, okay, yes, it’s nowhere close to a satisfying answer, but I have reasons!
First, the game itself actually requests that you not spoil the game too much for anyone. While it might be slightly hypocritical to do what you’re told in a game that’s all about breaking conventions and mind-screwing, the truth is that it’s more satisfying discovering the secrets for yourself.
And you have to search, pry, and peek into every corner. ICEY hides its backstory—I’m sorry, backstories in various corridors, secret rooms, and even below a ‘deadly pool’.
It would be a disservice to future players to reveal too much too soon.
And secondly, I have no idea WTF it’s about. And that’s what so great about it.
Without revealing too much, as you search, slice, and strengthen yourself, you’ll eventually find out ICEY’s duality: the characters’ Lovecraftian history—hence why I’m currently reading through The King in Yellow—and the backstory of the game itself. And that the Narrator is not an all-powerful deity. Hell, he’s barely in control most of the time.
That being said, if you look hard enough, you may find an actual deity. And, if you look even harder, you may find your self.
I unfortunately haven’t had time to piece together every bit of lore, or do proper research—which’ll eventually become the Part 2 to this review—but the things I’ve experienced through ICEY’s eyes—or are they my eyes? I just. Don’t. Know.
I’m so freakin’ confused, I don’t know what this game’s about, or what’s my place in it, and I absolutely love it.
This game is designed to mess with you, from its secrets to the boss design to the freakin’ Narrator, who seems to have taken guidance lessons from GLaDOS.
******WARNING: SPOILER TO FOLLOW!!**************************
I mentioned the boss design—let me reveal a spoiler that’s required to get two of the achievements: you can refuse to kill one of the bosses.
Meet Trinity. She’s found in one of the levels of the Central Tower that ICEY eventually comes to in her assignment to kill Judas. Notice something...different about her?
Every other boss in the game gets introduced by a stylish cut-in animation, a display of their name, and a health bar popping up. The only exceptions to this are the tutorial boss—and Trinity. Trinity has no “WARNING”-type intro. She has no health bar; in fact, if you do decide to attack, like the Narrator tells you to, she dies in a single sword stroke. She also doesn’t act like a boss.
Every other boss in this game will stay back and chill until you make the first move and close distance. But not Trinity. She never makes a move against you. It almost looks like she physically can’t. Look, the way she’s holding her arm, slumped over—she looks like she’s in the last stages of an exhausting sickness.
She also looks human. Yes, some of the other bosses are humanoid, and even human-sized, but Trinity is the only boss that could be at least partially physically human.
The Narrator tells you to kill her. He tells you that it’s the only way to get to Judas. He half-pleads with you, telling you that it’ll end her pain: all it takes is one stroke of your sword.
But as you wait, he gets mad. He calls you a hypocrite, that you’ve already eviscerated, sashimi-d, and julianned so many other enemies, without a care in the world, never questioning that you had to, but when you’re confronted by a female, all of a sudden you stop?!
Eventually, seeing you refusing to kill, he grudgingly opens the door for you. Behind there is the next boss: Dahal. He was the intro boss, and went down easy—but now he stands before you, in all his glory, and...wait, what?
He’s kneeling in front of you? Why? The Narrator’s just as shocked. Why? Why does this deadly automaton not pound you into the ground?
Because you didn’t kill Trinity.
**************END OF SPOILERS******************************
I got one more for you.
At several points in the game, you can throw ICEY to certain death—a “Mega Man meets spikes” kind of thing. The Narrator, as he does, will get pissed, and then the game gets more...interesting.
During one of these hissy fits, he decides to switch things up for you, and have you play a mini-game. While it’s definitely possible to beat this mini-game, I couldn’t during my play-through.
When I inevitably died, I was mercilessly mocked and belittled. I was told not to question, not to try and go outside the lines, as it were.
The Narrator, he said, “Just follow the path I’ve laid out for you.”
The game saved. When it was finished, I turned it off and walked away. I felt like a spider made of ice and lightning had walked up my back.
These two moments perfectly encapsulate what type of game ICEY is. It asks to really take a good, hard look at the things you take for granted or simply never bother to consider in mainstream games: that you, the supposed hero, tend to rack up body counts rivaling Ghengis Khan; that there’ll be giant floating arrows pointing you down the road, and they won’t lead you astray; that a non-first-person narrator, an entity supposedly coded ahead of time into the game, is actually omniscient.
As you delve deeper into the story behind the story, if you pay attention, you will find details into the story behind the story. You will question not just who ICEY is supposed to be, but why you have to fight Judas—indeed, why you have to fight any video game boss. The basic player-character bond, no, the player-character wall, will begin to break down.
***********END OF SPOILERS*********************************
You will question. The game will answer, if you want it to.
Sadly, this game isn’t perfect. The laser-beam flies, though rage-inducing, aren’t actually a problem if you know what you’re doing. But there are some actual flaws.
The first flaw involves timed button presses. Once enemies—any enemy, up to and including bosses—have been shredded enough, a ring of sparks circles them, and a button icon appears. Press the button on your keyboard, and ICEY deals out what are basically her version of Doom’s ‘glory kills’, which net more energy crystals and health than just whacking away. There’s also two different upgrades you can purchase that require such input: one is essentially ICEY’s Shadow Clone Jutsu, and another lets you do sneak attacks when you dash past enemies if you time it right (i.e., dash right as they start attack).
Unfortunately, the stylish-kill command doesn’t work unless you’re really close, and until ICEY is fully commited, it can be interrupted (although once you’ve gone full Neo, you can’t be hit), which is annoying, and can break the flow of battle. In addition, the timing of the sneak attack and ghost maneuvers is extremely tight. Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to practice. While the cannon fodder can be dealt with by button-mashing, the same can’t be said for the bosses.
And that brings me on to the second flaw: combat strategy. Practice and adventure enough, and you’ll eventually be able to flow seamlessly from combo to combo, weaving a tapestry of blade and circuitry through the air. Sadly, once a boss crosses your path, the performance of sword stops, and your strategy consists of two things: DASH out of the way! and SLASH until the boss hits you or runs away! Repeat until boss is down.
I’d really love to see this game with an actual ‘block’ mechanic. Deftly dodging is cool and all, but having the ability to parry and counter, a la the Fire Emblem characters in Smash, would add a whole new level to the combat. I don’t think Zero had a counter move, but there’s no reason for ICEY to completely rip off MMZ.
Finally, remember how I had to get up and turn the game off following one of the Narrator’s tirades? Well, that was with the original Chinese VA. Back in February, the English dub-track (along with the game soundtrack) was released in one of two DLCs, and while the English Narrator tried his best, he just wasn’t able to capture the original VA’s quiet menace in that one scene when I managed to backtrack to it again.
I can’t comment on the other English VA’s performance, though. I never heard their character’s original Chinese vocal track.